Sex Workers Bracing for Income Loss During Coronavirus Pandemic

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread globally, many sex workers are gearing up to take a financial hit.

“A lot of sex workers are freaking out right now,” said Andrea Werhun, a 30-year-old stripper based in Toronto.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization announced that coronavirus, or COVID-19, officially reached pandemic status. There are more than 118,000 COVID-19 cases in 114 countries, with several governments and employers taking drastic steps to limit travel and physical interaction between people. Italy is in a national lockdown, several US states have declared a state of emergency, and Canada’s biggest airline has cancelled all flights in and out of China and Italy. International health authorities have also urged people to maintain “social distancing,” which requires people to stay three feet away from anyone displaying cold and flu symptoms.

A lot of in-person sex work depends on intimate physical interaction. That’s why sex workers say they are taking extra precautions to stay safe. They are also concerned that clients will temporarily stop booking appointments—at least until the coronavirus risk dips, multiple sex workers told VICE.

“I feel like my career as a dancer is in jeopardy as it becomes increasingly less viable to hang out in crowds, which is kind of what I do every Friday and Saturday night in order to make money,” Werhun said.

Werhun said she’s seen a noticeable drop in clientele at the club where she works.

Strip clubs depend heavily on traveling businessmen, according to Werhun. As more companies across North America send their employees home and cancel business trips, she’s said she’s worried fewer businessmen will visit strip clubs—especially since her income depends on tips. As a stripper, Werhun doesn’t have benefits, a salary, or sick days.

“It’s a big, big blow,” Werhun said. “Locals and regulars are keeping sex workers afloat right now.”

Werhun doesn’t have plans to transition her sex work from in-person stripping to on-cam performances yet. That’s because she also earns by writing about sex work and sex worker rights. But she does see value in diversifying sex work.

“I’ve been joking about starting an Only Fans because if we’re in quarantine and I can’t leave my house it’s an effective way to make money,” Werhun said.

Whether the clients who continue to visit Werhun are healthy is anyone’s guess.

“I’m not screening my clients at the club for whether they’ve been to epidemic hotspots around the world,” Werhun said. “I don’t know if they’ve been to Iran, China, or Italy.”

Werhun said she’s going to be “extra militant” about making sure her clients wash their hands and use hand sanitizer.

Monica Forrester, a sex worker and outreach manager at Maggies, a sex worker action project, said she’s started telling her community to take additional safety measures.

“We see multiple people, so our risk factors do get higher, but for some people, giving up a client is something they can’t do because they have bills to pay,” Forrester said. “So it’s about still making your money, but being safe about it.”

COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets produced when a sick person sneezes or coughs. The droplets can land on people’s hands or in mouths and noses, and threaten infection. Forrester said she’s encouraging sex workers to think about implementing realistic boundaries, including extra hand sanitizer use, direct communication with clients about present cold and flu symptoms, no deep kissing, and other limits on saliva sharing to limit spread, even though spread can’t be avoided altogether.

In addition to saliva sharing, Canada’s Public Agency of Health (CPAH) has said COVID-19 can spread through close personal contact, including touching and shaking hands. Touching something—door handles, phones, remotes—with the virus on it before touching your mouth, nose, or eyes can also lead to transmission if you haven’t washed your hands, according to CPAH.

“It’s just about being mindful,” Forrester said, adding that clients shouldn’t be scared because sex workers know to monitor their symptoms and are taking precautions to keep everyone safe.

Montreal-based Jenn Clamen, the communications coordinator with Chez Stella, an organization run for sex workers by sex workers, said she hasn’t heard any concerns from the community yet.

“Our bodies are our working tool; sex workers are always taking care and concerned to make sure we are protecting ourselves and the people we meet,” Clamen said. “I can’t say that the industry has been affected for now. It’s probably too soon to tell.”

Mike Stabile, a spokesperson with the Free Speech Coalition, a non-profit trade association for the U.S. porn and adult entertainment industry, noted that sex work isn’t anymore dangerous than day-to-day interactions.

“Because transmission risk rises with the number of people interacted with, adult sets are less of risk than more pedestrian interactions, like going to the airport,” Stabile said.

An advisory issued from FSC earlier this month suggests all the usual WHO wellness guidelines—don’t touch your face, don’t work while sick—and added that performers should “try to build a stockpile of content to release in case you get sick or there is a halt in production.”

Stabile also pointed to international efforts geared towards protecting sex workers and clients. Stripchat, for example, is doubling payouts for Italian models to subsidize their lockdowns, Stabile said, and FanCentro, a service that connects models with fans, has already released a contingency plan for adult performers who might be affected by coronavirus-related travel bans and other physical limitations.

“We are hoping that the livelihood of performers is not adversely affected by the novel coronavirus, but should it be, we are eager to understand any ways we can help,” said FanCentro Vice President Kat Revenga.

Amanda Winters, a 27-year-old in Miami who originally started stripping to pay off graduate school debt and now escorts, told VICE she’s already struggling financially.

“I am getting more concerned about my financial situation,” Winters said. “On a stable schedule, I often would have two to four good clients a night…the past week—going on two now—I have had one full client.”

Winters said she will likely have to transition to on-cam work if business doesn’t pick up.

Taylor Stevens, 29, is a sex worker who splits her time between Toronto and Las Vegas. Stevens is a cam model, so she hasn’t noticed a decrease in clientele. In fact, Stevens has noticed a spike in her Italian fanbase.

“There are several factors here,” Stevens said. “I have also seen slow downs in [on-cam work] because more girls are working on cam for more hours then they usually would.”

Like Stevens, Toronto dominatrix Lady Pim offers diversified services. But she told VICE she’s preparing for a COVID-19-related downturn, just in case.

“It’s kind of looking like parts of Canada could go into a time where we aren’t going to be able to leave our houses—then, your livelihood might be threatened, like, I’m not on salary, I don’t have sick days,” Lady Pim told VICE, adding she’s in a pretty good spot compared to other people in her industry.

“My sex work is diversified. I will still make a portion of my income doing it from home with Skype sessions, texting dominations, and phone call dominations, so a quarantine wouldn’t lead to a complete loss in income,” Lady Pim said.

According to Lady Pim, quarantines will likely inspire people to pay for online sex at a greater magnitude.

“If we’re in lockdown—just by ourselves, don’t have a partner, and don’t have any sex or kink outlets—then I can 100 percent see people turning around to do a Skype session or phone session.”

For now, Lady Pim isn’t too worried because Canada has only about 100 cases of COVID-19—but that could change soon, she said.

“Since it’s progressing so quickly, things are changing from day to day,” Lady Pim said. “It’s kind of looking like parts of Canada could go into a time where we aren’t going to be able to leave our houses.”

With files from Samantha Cole.

Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on VICE CA.